The travels of Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s painting Wilderness Lake under a conservator’s magnifying glass 


Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s landscape painting completed in 1892 is one of the most sought-after artworks requested on loan from Gösta Serlachius Fine Arts Foundation. The landscape depicting a view from a close-by Huhkojärvi Lake was acquired by Gösta Serlachius from Helsinki-based Bäcksbacka Art Salon in 1934. Over the years, the artwork had been exhibited widely in 28 different exhibitions. In addition to the exhibitions in Finland, it had been on show abroad in Budapest, Paris, Stockholm, Warsaw, Cincinnati and Ontario, among others.    

Recurring loans, environmental fluctuations during their journey and moving the work around impose a strain for valuable artworks that we hope to be preserved as part of our own cultural heritage even for hundreds of years. Thus, the condition of the loaned artworks are closely monitored. 

When a loan request is received, the conservator checks every artwork requested on loan. Already before the loan agreement is drawn up the conservator delivers a statement as to whether the artwork withstands travelling at all, whether it needs protective measures or changes in its framing.  

Each artwork going on loan is checked several times: before departure, before hanging, at the end of the exhibition and after returning from the exhibition. This is because insurance premiums for loans of valuable artworks are very high. The condition of the artwork must be documented thoroughly at every stage of the loan against liability for damage and compensation claims.  

The work travels abroad in a specially made airtight and padded art transport crate escorted by the conservator. The conservator acting as courier monitors every phase of the journey and makes sure that everything proceeds according to the agreed terms of loan and the standards of art transportation. 

A conservator develops a rather intimate way of looking at artworks, and the characteristics of some of the collection works, such as the contours of the paint surface, or specific damages, become familiar over the years. A good example of this is Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s painting Wilderness Lake from the year 1892. 

Based on the condition checks done during the previous exhibitions, widely travelled paintings have a bunch of condition reports in their artwork register. In the register, the oldest condition report of the painting Wilderness Lake concerns the exhibition The Mystic North: Symbolist Landscape Painting in Northern Europe and North America, 1890–1940 held at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1984. 

The condition report provides information on the condition of the work on a general level, but based on that it is also possible to follow the progress of certain damages over the years. Old restorations in the area of the sky are mentioned in the report already then, and that “the colour is loose!”. Documenting the condition of the work then, the photograph attached to the report, also provides invaluable information for future conservators. According to contemporary protocol, the loose paint would have been secured prior to the loan so that not a single paint flake would be lost during the journey. 

In 2012, the painting was sent to John Nurminen Prima Ltd for conservation, at which time open cracks in the area of the sky as well as the paint delamination from the ground were consolidated. It refers to the same type of damage mentioned already in the 1984 report. A detail photograph documenting the paint loss before the restoration has been attached to the report. 

The same area contains very fine cracks which, due the strain experienced during the journey, may progress gradually through the layers of paint and be discernible only afterwards. During the inspection in 2022, beside the loose paint area stated 10 years ago, a new delamination was detected, where the paint is bending ominously upwards due to the mechanical stress caused by environmental fluctuations. 

In 2022, before its latest journey abroad to Warsaw National Museum’s exhibition Solstice, Masterpieces of Nordic Painting 1880–1910, an area with delaminated and concavely deformed paint was consolidated on surface of the Wilderness Lake. Monitoring of the paint surface in that particular area of the sky will continue.

Wilderness Lake has returned from its round trip abroad and will be on show until November 19 at Serlachius Museums Gustaf’s exhibition Genesis.

Anne Muszynski

Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Wilderness Lake, 1892, oil on canvas, Gösta Serlachius Fine Arts Foundation. Phtograph: Teemu Källi.
Condition report of the artwork consists of two white papers sheets with text and a black and white photo of the artwork.
An old condition report and a black and white photograph of the painting, prepared in 1984 for the exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Three close-up photographs show where small flakes of paint are missing from the surface of the painting and how it has been conservated so that the paint loss cannot be detected.
Above, a detail photo of Wilderness Lake from 2012. In the middle of the picture, a white area is visible where the blue paint had detached from the ground (paint loss), photographed by John Nurminen Prima Ltd before conservation. The paint loss shown above was restored among other conservation measures done back then. In the left photo below is the delaminated and deformed paint before conservation, and on the right after consolidation of the paint in 2022.